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Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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Miss Lonelyhearts | Miss Lonelyhearts Returns | Summary



After a few more days on the farm Betty and Miss Lonelyhearts return to the city. And soon as Miss Lonelyhearts sees "the Bronx slums," he realizes "Betty had failed to cure him." He will never be able to forget the letters. This realization cheers him up, because it proves he was right about the letters.

In the city Miss Lonelyhearts observes "Crowds of people mov[ing] through the street with a dream-like violence." He looks at the miserable and sick people: a man who seems to be on the verge of death, and a woman with a large neck growth, a goiter. He feels a strong desire to help them. His desire is sincere, which makes him happy.

Miss Lonelyhearts begins to philosophize, thinking to himself. "Men have always fought their misery with dreams," he thinks. Nowadays, he thinks, those dreams "have been made puerile [childish, trivial] by the movies, radio and newspapers." He thinks this cheapening of dreams is the worst betrayal.

He feels he has somehow failed at "dreaming the Christ dream." He failed because he wasn't humble, he thinks. Before bed he resolves to be humble, and the next day he goes back to work.

At work he starts writing about Christ, but he stops, disgusted with himself. "With him, even the word Christ was a vanity." He picks up a big Miss Lonelyhearts letter in a dirty envelope and starts to read. He compares the necessity of his reading the letter to "an animal tear[ing] at a wounded foot: to hurt the pain."

The intense and long letter is from a woman who signs it "Broad Shoulders." She tells of marrying a man who frequently tired of jobs, quitting them because he tired of them or "want[ed] to roam." She struggles to support him, herself, and their two children. He abandons her at one point, but the judge at his trial for child abandonment advises her to give him another chance.

He repays her by trying to get her arrested and threatening her life. She also gets a sexually transmitted infection from him. They take in a boarder to make ends meet. One day her husband plays a trick on her. He pretends to have left the house, but he actually hides under the bed. Hours later when she comes to make the beds, she finds him lying there, grimacing and leering. She sees he has "a face like the mask of a devil with only the whites of the eyes showing." His hands are "clenched to choke anyone." The sight is so frightening she suffers from temporary paralysis the rest of the day. She tells Miss Lonelyhearts her husband had lain there for more than six hours and "dirtied himself waiting to fright me."

She moved out but he asked for another chance, which she gave. However, "he did more crazy things to [sic] many to write and I left him again." She is sick, impoverished, and living with a boarder who sexually harasses her. (He "tries to make me be bad," she says.) She concludes her letter by asking what to do. She asks Miss Lonelyhearts if she should take her husband back. She asks how she can support her children. Finally she adds a postscript about her pen name. She is not physically broad shouldered "but that is the way I feel about life and me I mean."


As Miss Lonelyhearts gazes at the crowds of suffering people in the city he thinks, "Men have always fought their misery with dreams." The contemporary dreams offered by movies and the like are "puerile [childish]." Even the "Christ dream" is a powerful one but has been displaced by these flimsy, useless dreams of celebrities. Miss Lonelyhearts feels he has "a share in it"—a share in the "betrayal" in which once-powerful dreams were made cheap. What makes Miss Lonelyhearts's part in it "particularly bad" is "he [is] capable of dreaming the Christ dream."

Miss Lonelyhearts is an imperfect character, and his efforts to arrive at perfection and purity are limited. Therefore his "Christ dream" is also imperfect. Even the word dream exhibits a slightly odd way for a savior of the people to look at religion. Dreams are fleeting. They vanish with the daylight. One might expect a true believer to describe Christ as truth, not as a dream. In this Miss Lonelyhearts resembles the cynical Shrike, who readily says there are just few ways out of suffering, and all of them are illusions. But perhaps "dreaming the Christ dream" means something powerful and deep to Miss Lonelyhearts.

According to West's biographers Martin Jay and Martha Meade, West made very few changes to the Broad Shoulders letter. It is essentially the same letter West pocketed at a dinner with his friend Quentin Reynolds who was working as "Susan Chester," the Miss Lonelyhearts of a Brooklyn newspaper. But the Broad Shoulders letter was never published in the Susan Chester column. The letters Reynolds brought to dinner that night were ones the newspaper deemed unfit to print. The newspaper editors were probably right; the column is a kind of entertainment, and there is nothing entertaining about Broad Shoulder's long and horrible story. So the real fictionalizing West did was this: his fictional newspaper prints the real letter of a real sufferer, and West's story enters the realm of real suffering in the real life of his time.

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